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Words: Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander (b. Apr. ___, 1818; d. Oct. 12, 1895)
Music: Chartres, a 15th century French melody
Note: Mrs. Alexander has given us a number of fine hymns. You can see a biography, also noting several of her hymns, on the Wordwise Hymns link. The tune I’m most familiar with for the present song, published in 1853, is not currently found on the Cyber Hymnal (though I’ve suggested the editor add it). It is included in one of the hymn books on Hymnary.org. (In The Sunday School Hymnal, of 1871, the tune is called The Adoration, and it’s attributed to Mozart.)
The tune Harwell, by Lowell Mason (also used with Hark, Ten Thousand Harps and Voices), is included as an option by the Cyber Hymnal, and it seems to work reasonably well.
The visit of the wise men is described in Matthew 2:1-11.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him’….And behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt. 2:1-2, 9-11).
Tradition and fiction have coloured our understanding of this event. John Hopkins’ carol, We Three Kings has abetted this departure from history. We are never told how many there were. The fact that there were three gifts is hardly conclusive. There could have been two or ten. And they were not kings, as far as we know, but Persian magi, students of the stars.
Further, many carols and artful manger scenes insist on including the wise men among the shepherds, visiting the baby Jesus on that first Christmas night. However, it is likely the wise men lived in Persia. If the star they saw appeared on the night of Jesus’ birth, it was likely many weeks before they arrived in Bethlehem. By then, Mary and Joseph were living in a house, and Jesus is described as a “young Child” (vs. 11). The visit of the wise men is connected to Christmas by the star, but their arrival took place some time after.
Mrs. Alexander has avoided all of this, giving us the story as the Bible unfolds it, but also providing an invitation to meditate on its meaning.
CH-1) Saw you never, in the twilight,
When the sun had left the skies,
Up in heav’n the clear stars shining
Through the gloom, like silver eyes?
So of old the wise men, watching,
Saw a little stranger star,
And they knew the King was given,
And they followed it from afar.
CH-2 Heard you never of the story
How they crossed the desert wild,
Journeyed on by plain and mountain,
Till they found the holy Child?
How they opened all their treasure,
Kneeling to that infant King;
Gave the gold and fragrant incense,
Gave the myrrh in offering?
Now comes the application. “The Bright and Morning Star” is the Lord Jesus’ own title for Himself (Rev. 22:16). His saving work was not only for His people Israel, but He was a light for all the world.
“Indeed He [God the Father] says, ‘It is too small a thing that You [God the Son] should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Isa. 49:6).
CH-3) Know ye not that lowly Baby
Was the Bright and Morning Star?
He who came to light the Gentiles,
And the darkened isles afar?
And we, too, may seek His cradle;
There our hearts’ best treasures bring;
Love, and faith, and true devotion
For our Saviour, God and King.
1) What are some lessons we can learn from the wise men?
2) Given that this is a more accurate and meaningful carol about the wise men, would you use it at Christmas time?